Fresh questions have been raised about the government’s drive to boost private providers after it emerged that the biggest, St Patrick’s College, is being investigated by two government departments and by the UK’s quality watchdog.
St Patrick’s, whose students received £95.7 million in public-backed funding in 2013-14, more than any other private college, is being investigated by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Quality Assurance Agency, while the Home Office has also suspended its licence to recruit overseas students, Times Higher Education has learned.
The developments come after the Public Accounts Committee published a critical report about the government’s expansion of private provision. Margaret Hodge, the committee chair, said the report showed that the government proceeded “without sufficient regulation in place to protect public money” and ignored “repeated warnings” on the risks.
Speaking to THE, Ms Hodge, a Labour MP, praised the publication for its reporting on private providers – saying that there had “been helpful work done by you” which she used at the PAC hearing – and accused the government of “nonchalant abuse of public money”.
THE was the first to report on the explosive growth in publicly funded student numbers at St Patrick’s, which went from zero to 4,000 in just one year, and has revealed that the college is owned by a Netherlands holding company.
A BIS spokesman did not disclose what was being investigated but said: “We are aware of concerns with St Patrick’s International College and both we and the Quality Assurance Agency have launched investigations into these concerns.”
He added: “We have and will take action to protect students and public funding from misuse, and, as always, will work with the Student Loans Company to recover any public money that has been abused.”
A QAA spokeswoman confirmed that the agency was holding an investigation under its Concerns scheme – which is focused on standards and quality – but said that details would remain confidential until publication of a report.
“We are investigating allegations about St Patrick’s International College thoroughly and with as much speed as possible,” she said.
A Home Office spokesman said: “St Patrick’s International College had its Tier 2 and 4 sponsor licence suspended on 19 February due to concerns about a number of compliance issues. The college has 20 working days to submit representations.”
St Patrick’s has vacated its previous main teaching site, on Carey Street in Central London, close to the London School of Economics. This is still listed on the Higher Education Funding Council for England register of providers as being one of the college’s two sites “designated” for students to receive SLC funding.
The college has applied to have new premises in Billiter Street in the City of London approved for designation. As THE has reported, St Patrick’s apologised to students for “not sufficient resources” and overcrowding at entrances and exits shortly after the start of teaching at Billiter Street.
BIS’ spokesman said that the department has “stopped [St Patrick’s] recruiting new students using student support while we review their application to have the new site designated”.
Daniel Khan, St Patrick’s principal, said that the premises “are of high quality”, and that BIS “has said that it needs to be satisfied that designation of the premises will not adversely affect the operations or processes of the college”. “I can only imagine that this is the ‘investigation’ you are referring to,” he added.
Sally Hunt, the University and College Union general secretary, said: “St Patrick’s is one of the institutions that grew very fast out of nowhere once the government allowed them access to taxpayer-funded student loans. It is incredible that nobody thought to check this type of rapid expansion at the time.”
THE has reported that the government last year warned St Patrick’s that it could refuse the college access to public student loans because of concerns about its finances, but later gave the green light, saying that the worries had been addressed by the college.
Ms Hodge described the results of the government’s expansion of private provision, begun under former universities and science minister David Willetts, as “pretty scandalous”.
Asked why she believed ministers had pressed ahead without a regulatory framework, she replied: “I think you had better ask Willetts.”